Develop your business acumen to remain relevant

Business acumen

If any part of your role at work requires you to be a trusted advisor, then developing business acumen has probably never been as crucial as it is now.

In the communications profession, for instance, the foundational and more tactical aspects of the professional communicator’s role, such as copywriting and proofreading, are increasingly being outsourced ­– or even replaced with apps (see Hemingway, Grammarly etc).

This and other global trends were discussed at a masterclass and luncheon with the international chair of IABC, Michael Ambjorn, during his recent trip to New Zealand. A group of senior practitioners in Wellington was invited to hear his insights about trends affecting the profession.

He made the point that, to remain relevant and employable, communications professionals need to be able to add value and operate as trusted advisors at a senior level. But some are struggling because they don’t “read what the CE reads” or keep up with what is happening in their operating environment. This is a mistake because, as Michael and others have said, “If you’re not at the boardroom table, you’re probably on the menu”.

This sentiment is not new, but it is a good reminder. Communications functions that still operate at the reactive, tactical level may find it hard to justify their existence when organisations’ operating budgets come under scrutiny.

I’ve heard many communications professionals over the years complain about not being at the ‘top table’ and not being taken seriously enough by the organisation’s leaders.

But when I run effective workplace communications training for people outside an organisation’s communications team, I also get to hear from the other side – the internal customers – who sometimes describe the communications team as being anything but strategic and business focused. They are more likely to be thought of as the “no you can’t” people. I hear comments such as, “They’re always telling us why we can’t do something, but I don’t hear them say what we can do instead” and, a communication director’s worst nightmare, “We just usually find a way to work around them”.

This doesn’t exactly position communications professionals as strategic business partners.

If communications teams want to be seen as adding value and able to operate at a strategic level, perhaps they need to think more strategically about their everyday conversations with internal customers – and to develop their business acumen so they are better placed to have those conversations.

As Susan Colantuono advised women leaders in her popular Ted Talk, having business, strategic and financial acumen is “a given” to be successful but unfortunately, she says, nobody tells women that when giving out career advice. That could be true in the communications profession as well.

Unfortunately, the default response from leaders when the team has a poor reputation is usually to restructure. But, like many organisational change initiatives, they often fail to meet intended objectives because there is no lasting change in the behaviour of the people concerned.

The opportunity

Whether you are a leader of a communications team, or of another team in an advisory role, building the team's reputation and skills needed to operate as a strategic business partner would be time well spent. For instance, by:

  • ensuring that professional development plans don’t just focus on functional skills, but also on developing business, strategic and financial acumen
  • encouraging the team to keep up with the political and economic events affecting the sector in which you work, or that have the potential to impact your organisation’s strategic direction. To Michael's point above, "read what the CE reads". (Why not reinforce the habit by creating quizzes on the issues for team meetings?)
  • ensuring your people stay focused on the business outcomes when having conversations with internal customers. That is, start by asking “What is the business outcome you need my help to achieve?” (instead of “No, you can’t…”).

See also: “Internal communications is everyone’s job”.


Lucy Sanderson-Gammon, MBA, is a consultant, trainer and coach, specialising in organisational behaviour and communications. She is owner and director of Luminous Consulting.